American Idol

The American Idol Grand Finale

And this… was American Idol…

I started writing this just after the American Idol: American Dream retrospective special, and finished up just after midnight a few days after the finale, so if I jump around incoherently, that’s why. Or at least it’s my excuse. But either way I’ve definitely been in the mood to type a bit about the most influential music show of the 21st century… This post may be ever-evolving too, as I sit back and think “And Another Thing! … ”

It actually might be a little bit tough to add to what has already been an hour and a half of “looking back.” But, I think I might have a bit to add. I’m gonna try not to say things like “as they said on the special…” because some of it obviously is going to be duplicate information. Other stuff, not so much.

Simon: The shock of the show

As much as I like to feel like a true fan of the show, it must be said that I wasn’t there from the beginning. Not the absolute beginning, anyway. I remember when I first started watching Idol. My brother had been after me for a couple of weeks to watch this new singing competition on television and the mean British guy who was on there. I heard him mutter names like “Tamyra” and “Guarini” and not have a clue what he was talking about.

You gotta hear what this guy Simon is saying to these people! They’re trying to sing and he stops them and tells them they suck!

I vividly remember sitting in my office chair at my previous house in Bridgeport and deciding it was time to tune in. It was the first episode of the top ten. I had missed what was probably the most entertaining and shocking portion of season one, the auditions. I did catch clips here and there to make up for this later, but this was 2002 and YouTube was yet to be invented. And there certainly was no “Fox on Demand.” Shoot. Idol didn’t even have americanidol.com at this point in time. They started out with idolonfox.com. At any rate, even though I joined the party a bit late, I was hooked.

Kelly Wins over a nation — But, how?

Of course, Kelly went on to win Season 1, and thankfully so.  I think, quite possibly, if Justin Guarini had gone on to win that first season, there’s a good chance Idol would never have had the chance to take off. But without Kelly’s success, Idol would have become just an average TV show. But ordinary people — viewers — felt invested in Kelly’s success. They came out in full force to support Kelly after her victory by snatching up CD’s and making her one of American Idol’s power stars.

One thing I will say about the early years of Idol, and the successes that came with it, is how American Idol took a relative “nobody” and turned them into a superstar virtually overnight. And something I never quite got in the first seasons is how the audience, especially the studio audience, can go so crazy over someone who, just last week was a relative “nobody.” The show works, but how?

I think the key, to be honest, is fake enthusiasm. That may sound a bit critical coming from a fan of the show, but I think, mainly in the first season, a lot of fake enthusiasm was manufactured. The eruptions and adulation in the stands worked as a visual cue to those of us at home that simply said “I’m crazy about this singer, and you should be, too!” So, one major factor to Idol’s success was the generation of fake enthusiasm, which is indistinguishable from genuine enthusiasm to a television audience. You can see it and hear it sometimes from the crowds of season one. The sudden, unnatural eruptions of cheers and the prodding of producers barely in camera range. This helped build a franchise, one fan at a time.

Season Two — The boxing match

I loved always hearing American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe refer to season two as a “boxing match.” He characterizes the battle between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard as a classic punch-for-punch dance around the ring. Isn’t it funny how NBC’s The Voice refers to it’s duet rounds as Knockouts? Anyway, the real battle for Idol’s second season wasn’t only fought between Clay and Ruben, but rather fans of the “Velvet Teddy Bear” and the “Claymates.”

It may be more accurate to depict the battle as that of being between fans of either singer and the phone system. The standard phone system was simply overwhelmed for voting during season two, and that helped lead to text methods of voting, and eventually, online voting and SuperVotes. The online wikia for American Idol season two notes that out of 24 million votes cast, the winner was separated from second place by merely 130,000 votes. 

That would lead to approximately 11,935,000 votes for Clay Aiken and 12,065,000 for Ruben Studdard. Honestly, the margin of error due to voting irregularities would fall well within that range. Season two was a virtual tie, but I think Idol was happy with result they got. The resulting controversy only added to the popularity of the show, and Claymates were bound and determined to support their boy well beyond the end of the season.

Sometimes the right winner wins.

But there’s little doubt that Clay’s fans would have an impact on the future of the show. Clay’s strong support, even in the face of finishing second, showed that it didn’t take a victory to ensure success. Sometimes, finishing second can actually improve a contestant’s outlook, since a rabid fan base will voice its opinion by buying CD’s or singles, or digital downloads… Which leads me to my next point…

Idle hands?

One thing I want to say, and this seems as good a time as any, is the relationship between American Idol and our 21st century technical revolution. I think it’s a stretch to say that “American Idol taught the nation to text.” I mean, in the first season there was no text message voting, and in season two only AT&T and CIngular wireless customers could actually cast text votes. But texting and online voting is not the only change that affected American Idol, and not always for the show’s good.

When YouTube debuted in 2005 its effect on Idol was minimal. It was primarily used to catch up on missed performances (often uploaded by fans) and lo-definition clips from the summer tours taken with cell phones, also uploaded by fans. (Clack, anyone?) But as YouTube’s audience increased, and the quality of those homemade videos also increased, YouTube itself became a source of talent that began to complete for America’s attention — against American Idol.

The change was gradual. Combine YouTube with the rise of Twitter and Facebook and social media in general, and some major changes would be in store of Idol over the next few years. The show would have to become more interactive, and for a show that thrives on secrecy (we usually don’t even know how the voting numbers play out) this was cause for concern.

With the music industry struggling to sell CDs, American Idol breathed some life into sales, with several new artists coming out yearly to push their wares. But the digital musical revolution was underway, and selling CDs was becoming less and less important as Idol grew into middle age. The whole package of what constituted an American Idol was morphing and Idol was slow to catch up.

It’s interesting to note that nearer the end of the series, Idol did a fantastic job of making media available online. (Well, with the exception of americanidol.com. That site’s been a mess ever since season three…) When Kelly Clarkson sang a stripped down version of her song “Piece by Piece” on the show toward the end of season 15, the Idol machine was able to studio record the song and have it released on iTunes by the following Monday. That’s impressive.

More talent

As I read what I’ve written, it looks like I’m going to write a review for each season. That wasn’t my original intent. 🙂 But I will touch on a few of my favorite contestants… and at least the winner of each season.

Kelly Clarkson – The original Idol, and the most successful pop star the show has produced. When she sang “Natural Woman” she became the one to beat and no one caught up after that. Even to this day.

Clay Aiken – Has such a pure voice. Early on his annunciation bugged me. But once I appreciated that, I was on the Claytrain. He’s had more success on Broadway than in the pop world, but his first CD, Measure of a Man, is still one of my favorite Idol alum albums. At the finale, his performance shows he still has the ability to “use his voice.”

Ruben Studdard – The velvet teddy bear is quite the crooner. Although Clay was my favorite from season two, Ruben certainly was entitled to his win. I’d like to see him stick with the style that won Idol, but that may not sell digital downloads today…

Fantasia – I have to admit, I was not impressed with Fantasia back when she won season three. I thought she spent too much time making noise, and not enough time singing. I just didn’t care for her style. But especially at this year’s final finale, I enjoyed her performance. She brings emotion that’s often lacking in other singers.

Carrie Underwood – By the numbers, the most successful artist the show has ever produced. Her win was proof that Idol could make a star in a genre other than pop. With an estimated worth of $70 million, she is a powerhouse in the country music field. She is one of the few Idol alums (probably along with Kelly Clarksbon) who have become a leader in their chosen fields.

Taylor Hicks – Was not the obvious choice early on to win season five. In fact, if it were up to Simon, Taylor would not have made it past the judges’ audition round. I was happy to see him break out the harmonica at the final finale. He found limited success post-Idol in the AC world, but the Soul Patrol still stands behind their singer.

Katharine McPhee – Another contestant who went on to great success after American Idol. Katharine has starred in two prime time television shows, but is best known on Idol for her amazing performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Katharine was really the first “calculating” contestant. Every move she made, outfit that was worn, and note that was sung was carefully planned in advance. Her mother, a vocal coach, helped her plan her journey from audition to finale. She had an “off-the-street” look when she arrived which gave her the ability to “grow” throughout the competition. The plan worked quite well for Katharine, falling just short of the season five title. Things worked out quite well for her mom as well, as she became a full-time American Idol vocal and audition coach. Well done!

Chris Daughtry – His early exit was one of the most shocking in Idol history. In most ways, his early exit helped his career more than winning would have. What kind of “coronation song” does Daughtry sing at the season finale? “Do I Make You Proud?” “A Moment Like This?” It just doesn’t work. So his entrance into pop radio was better off with his non-winning status. Still thriving in the pop music world today…

Kellie Pickler – “Calamari Kellie” went on to a successful country career; maybe not as high as Carrie Underwood, but successful nonetheless. Kellie always had humor on her side, and her ditzy persona helped win her a few fans along the way. My favorite: When Kellie ate dinner with Wolfgang Puck.

Mandisa – Like Carrie before her, Mandisa has shown that the pop music field isn’t the only place an Idol can succeed. Mandisa has had a presence on the Contemporary Christian charts for several years, and just went on tour with eighth season finalist Danny Gokey.

Danny Gokey and Mandisa perform at Jewel City Church in Shinnston

The discussion of singing “Christian” music while on Idol has been a topic often discussed. The judges and producers certainly discouraged it, specifically in the audition process. Some contestants were told “Do not sing a religious song.” For some contestants, it helps strengthen a bond with the voting audience. For others, not so much. It seemed like the later rounds were the best for choosing a potentially Christian-themed song. (In my mind, a “Christian-themed song” may not be blatantly obvious. For example, Candice Glover’s winning song “I Am Beautiful” could easily be taken as a Christian song, but there is no direct mention of religion in the song. For that matter, Chris Daughtry’s “Home” has been played on Contemporary Christian radio, giving a completely to meaning to “I’m going Home, to the place where I belong.” There could probably be an entire thesis written on just this topic.)

Anyway, back to the task at hand… Jordin Sparks – Her first single, “This Is My Now” is the ultimate American Idol coronation song. Jordin is certainly a very capable singer who hasn’t seen as much success as earlier winners. She did see some success with “No Air,” her duet with Chris Brown, as well as her song “Battlefield.” But she hasn’t been incredibly successful.

I’m afraid that’s going to be a theme with a lot of winners from here on out…

Sanjaya – Mainly noteworthy because of his fauxhawk. But, a good example of what happens when you let the public vote. Also, Ashley Ferl is fortunate that memes had not yet become a thing.

David Cook – Has had quite a few popular rock songs, with his most recent “Heartbeat” being performed on Idol earlier this season. He did take a bit of flack for his coronation song. It was dubbed the “magic rainbow” song because of its sappy lyrics. Hey, it’s Idol. What did you expect?

Kris Allen – Another in the series of WGWG that permeated Idol around this time. I actually preferred Adam Lambert’s version of “No Boundaries” which was released at the same time as the winner’s single, oddly enough. However, Kris is probably best known for his single “Live Like We’re Dying” which was a catchy tune. More of that, please.

Adam Lambert – Probably really shoulda won this season… Adam had some of the best performances in the history of the show, with “Mad World” probably being the best of the bunch. Was known for making crazy wild arrangements of songs. Made “Burning Ring of Fire” sound like a song about STDs… (“It burns! It burns!”)  Has gone on to success in the charts with a few singles and has excellently collaborated with Queen.

Danny Gokey – Has been quite successful in Contemporary Christian music. Just finished a tour with Mandisa and can be heard frequently on the radio. Was picked on for his primal scream when singing “Dream On” on the Idol stage. Lol.

Allison Iraheta – Performed a stellar duet with Adam Lambert of “Slow Ride” while on Idol. Went on to be a regular part of the Idol family by singing background vocals in later seasons. Still rocks with her current band, Halo Circus.

Lee DeWyze – Probably the most unheralded winner of American Idol. That season never really found its mojo, I don’t think. Lee is a perfectly capable singer, he just hasn’t found the combination yet. His coronation song, “Beautiful Day” was already well-known since U2 wrote and released it years earlier.

Scotty McCreery – Another country voice from Idol. His coronation song, “I Love You This Big” was heavy on the cheese, but a fitting choice that sounds like it is being sung to his fans. Has had a couple of popular songs, like 2014’s “Feelin’ It” which reached the Top 10 on country airplay.

Haley Reinhart – Best known for her raspy voice, she has a classic, throwback style unlike any other Idol contestant. Has sung a few times with Postmodern Jukebox, and pairs well with…

Casey Abrams – Casey plays the bassy. That’s a good description. Pairs well with Haley, above. His style was so different, he earned the judges save and almost passed out, puked, and other not-so-digestible bodily functions. He is crazy talented.

Phillip Phillips – Had a knack for making the arrangements his own. Like Adam Lambert did, but not at all involving STDs… His winning song “Home” perfectly summed up his journey, and made for an excellent song that was played repeatedly during the summer Olympics that year. Another song of his, “Gone, Gone, Gone” was similarly structured and was used as an Idol “goodbye” song the next season.

Colton Dixon – Another Contemporary Christian success to come out of Idol. His song “Through All Of It” is currently being played on CC stations and reached #11 on US charts. He performed a slice of the song on the season 15 finale.

Candice Glover – Sang “I Am Beautiful” as her coronation song but hasn’t gone on to much success. Hopes to release a second album independently soon.

Caleb Johnson – Another strong rocker voice from Idol. I enjoyed his coronation song “As Long As You Love Me” but it only reached #41 on the US rock charts.

Jena Irene – I rather liked her song “We Are One,” released at the end of Idol, that would have been her winning song. It didn’t make the charts, Jena does have plans to release an album before year’s end.

Nick Fradiani – His coronation song, “Beautiful Life” was quite catchy, hit #22 on the digital downloads chart after release last summer. He performed his latest song  “Get You Home” on this season’s Idol.

Trent Harmon – So, what can we say about Trent. He is certainly different from many of the past Idol winners. For one, he won’t have the advantage of being able to hop on to next season’s show to tout his new album. He definitely has the chops, but so did many others preceding him recently that have gone on to…. nothing much. He’ll have to learn to use the popularity of this last season (“for now”) of Idol, and continue to connect with his fans via social media to cash in on his Idol victory. It’s not impossible, but it will be challenging.

Keeping the audience entertained

So one affect the rise of social media had an Idol: It kept the fans entertained beyond the show. American Idol needed the Internet in its early days to help keep audience attention through community bulletin boards, interactive web sites, and some other third thing, but that same tool that allowed audiences to stay connected also created competition for the Idol Machine.

The summer tours, often sponsored by Pop Tarts (insert your own joke here) were another way the audience was able to interact with the show.

Those who watched and voted felt like they had a vested interest in the success of their favorites, The effect was a lot like “discovering” new talent — the thought that “I was there from the beginning. I helped discover that artist.” But now, that same feeling can be achieved through subscribing to a YouTube channel of a relatively unknown singer/comedian/goofball.

The Legacy

So what does Idol leave behind? Well, a few Grammy award winning artists, for one. Even an Oscar winner. Piles of pop, country, Christian, rock, Broadway, jazz, and soul CD’s that we constantly trip over, trying to find just one shining star. Sometimes, the glut and volume of Idol music becomes its own worst enemy. The idea behind American Idol is that “not everyone can be an Idol.” Well, now we have 15 of them, and that’s just counting the winners.

After reading through my Idol reviews, I have to admit, this is the time to pull the plug. The last several Idols have gone unheralded even though they each have something to offer. When you have to say “is looking forward to releasing their album. Soon.” you know there’s a problem somewhere. The Idol machine can’t “roll on” with this much baggage.

I say, take a year off, Idol, maybe two. Take a trip to the south of France to “find yourself.” Come back leaner, sleeker, possibly more tan. Rename yourself to just Idol! (Yes. Have an exclamation point.) Have a huge social networking focus. Shoot, you might even find that you don’t need Fox to broadcast you, Just latch on to the streaming provider of your choice and hang on. Maybe even become your own content provider. Be the twitch.tv of music. Be the destination where someone livestreams their latest Ed Sheeran cover and it gets a million hits, and once a year we gather the best and the worst and, starting in January we air it all. Then we get the top 10 and have them perform live for America’s vote. Your sheer volume of Facebook video shares from this past season show that you still have plenty to offer. The key is just trying to figure out how to move from creating online video buzz to selling music in a time where “instant celebrity” is common, and fame is fleeting. In an age where “Angry Splash Mountain Lady” can grab our attention for a few minutes, it’s gonna be hard to come up with something that can keep our attention for longer than a Disney ride.

And now we’ve found the key to Idol’s early success. On a Wednesday evening in 2003, the entire family would sit down to watch some young singers croon, much like they did in generations past on Ed Sullivan, or even Star Search. But this time, we’d spend some of our time using our phones to use our voices and say who we wanted to see again next Wednesday. And people felt connected. We’d discuss performances on Thursday at work, and of course tune in that night to see who was “going home.” I’m afraid our over-stimulated American attention spans may not be long enough to sustain that type of television again in the near future. It was the caustic verbal assault of Simon Cowell that made us examine American Idol. What would it take to get us to tune back in?

Some of my personal favorite American Idol performances. (In no particular order.)

This is where Kelly really begins to shine…

This is the night where we capture forever and all our tomorrows begin…

A little bit of Slow Ride…

An early favorite sings a classic

Tell me, how high did you soar?

I’m on your side when times get rough…

You’ve got to fight for every dream…

This is what we dream about

It’s a very, very mad world

You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout, girl

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